Ariana Franklin is actually Diana Norman, an author whose books I've enjoyed for years - my favourite being The Vizard Mask. She writes historicals and Mistress of the Art of Death is no exception apart from the fact that it is also a crime novel. Think Cadfael or the Shardlake novels by C.J. Sansom and you have it.
The story concerns Adelia who is something very rare indeed in the year 1170, a doctor. In fact she is doctor trained in autopsies, a 'Mistress of the art of death'. Children are being abducted and murdered in Cambridge and the Jewish quarter is suspected. In fact they've been interned in Cambridge castle, which means that Henry II is losing revenue and is not a happy bunny. The King of Sicily arranges for Adelia to travel from Salerno with an investigator and a eunoch to find out what's going on and solve the crime. What Adelia finds when she eventually arrives in a land very foreign to her, shocks her, and it takes every bit of her resolve and then some to get to the bottom of events.
Almost without doubt this is going to be one of my favourite reads of 2007. Everything about it was perfect - from the setting, to the less than perfect characters, to the genuine creepiness Franklin instils into the plot. I found myself actually holding my breath on several occasions, the suspense was so effective. Flawless writing helps of course - Franklin's writing is at times spare, at other times, not at all, but always appropriate. And her gift for local dialect is spot on. I can't think of anything derogatory to say about it to be honest - the only thing perhaps is that I did guess 'whodunnit' fairly early on but that in no way detracted from my enjoyment. I do so hope this is going to be a series as I would love to read much more of Adelia's struggles amongst the 'heathens' of 12th. century England.